Cross Strokin’ in Costa Rica’s Endangered Rivers

Canoeist films Costa Rican rivers under threat of damming

While boaters in the United States are rejoicing the rebirth of rivers as dams get torn down, paddlers from other countries face the doom of their beloved runs. Last February, a group of whitewater canoeists ventured down to Costa Rica to enjoy the rivers slated off for damming and under the threat. One of them, an up and coming filmmaker Chris Loomis captured the group’s moments through his lens and created a film portraying what they showed and what the world will soon lose. Canoe & Kayak got a chance to talk with him.

Canoe & Kayak magazine: What did you want to say in your video? What was the story?
Chris Loomis: There were two stories I was trying to convey with my video. One was that Costa Rica truly is an amazing place to boat, completely different from anything I’ve paddled in the States. For me it was comparable to the Grand Canyon in terms of the all-encompassing, engaging nature of the trip. You are constantly surrounded with exotic scenery and beautiful rivers.

The other story was that every river in Costa Rica is under constant threat of inundation, or is dammed already. It’s really a tragedy because the rivers of Costa Rica are pristine gems with awesome whitewater, but since the privatization of utilities, nearly every river has been slated for a hydroelectric project. Every river we paddled was affected by this hydro development. The Rio Sarapiqui is already dammed and releases irregularly. The Rio Pacuare faces a major threat from a large-scale hydro project that would inundate the river. The Rio Reventazòn has seen its upper sections lost due to dam construction, and sometime in 2016, a new dam will flood the Florida section that we paddled. The most tragic is the Rio Balsa, which is an absolute gem, a deep jungle gorge that is similar to the Rio de Oro in Mexico. Developers have already begun dynamiting the cliff side, and by 2014 the rock fall will act as a cofferdam, allowing a dam to be constructed that will permanently flood the river. It’s a travesty to lose a wild river such as the Rio Balsa. Even more disheartening is that there is very little being done to protect the watersheds. I’m hoping that any paddler who watches my video and wishes to paddle in Costa Rica will realize how tenuous the situation is and acts accordingly.

The dam construction affects paddling in more ways than one. We had a momentary scare on the Balsa when we turned a corner and there was a river-wide excavator strainer. A backhoe was scooping sediment from the river bottom, and we had to scramble to avoid the bucket as he raised it out of the way.

You got to paddle and film with Jeremy Laucks, Richard Guin and Eli Helbert, all big names in canoeing. What was that like?

The crew we had was as much a part of the story as the rivers we paddled. Our group was solid, and I’m really lucky as a paddler and a filmmaker to have that kind of talent on the river. Eli is one of the best all around canoeists of all time, and I learned so much just watching him paddle. Jim Coffey with Esprit opened up canoeing in Mexico and Costa Rica, and his stories alone are worth the cost of the plane ticket. Jeremy and I have paddled together quite a bit, so it was good having someone I could depend on. Plus Jeremy is a great videographer, and his footage was crucial in putting the film together.

Filming a crew like this is an adventure. The talent level is so high that any moment can be spectacular. But the whole crew was solid and it was great to be a part of the fun.

How was balancing filming with paddling? What were your favorite things that you recorded?
Balancing two separate but equally engrossing passions is difficult for me. Sometimes I wonder if I’m a paddler who likes to film or a filmmaker who likes to paddle. But they do work together. I like filming the group as they go through a big rapid before I run it because the camera forces me to look at the rapid more critically. By focusing on the paddlers as they comes through, I see what they experience, the little rocks along the way that I wouldn’t have seen, the reactions to threads of current I can’t see from shore, and so on. The camera is like a portal into their world, and it gives me great beta for my own run.

There were some really great subjects to shoot down in Costa Rica. As soon as I started filming monkeys and crocodiles, I knew making the film was going to be fun. In terms of my favorite shot for filmmaking’s sake, I really like how one of my time-lapse shots of the La Fortuna waterfall turned out. The sun hit the waterfall perfectly, and you really get a sense of the scale of the drop and the denseness of the jungle.

Did your story change as you paddled/traveled there?
The story changed a lot. Originally we had planned on running Pozo Azul, a 35-foot waterfall, but the drop was too low when we got to Costa Rica. So I was forced to throw out the storyboard I had in my mind and start over. I basically shot as much footage as possible as I waited to find the story, and luckily, the beauty and the uniqueness of the environment was a story in itself. As soon as I found out about the hydro threats, I knew that that was what I wanted to focus on.

How did Costa Rica push you as a boater/filmmaker?
As a paddler, Costa Rica pushed me a great deal. Coffey has a great set up that allows you to get comfortable in a boat and then step it up. By the end, I was feeling pretty good and tried to follow Eli as much as possible and rock-spinned the heck out of everything. The joys of paddling someone else’s boats!
As a filmmaker, I feel like Costa Rica pushed me even more. This latest film was a step up in what I had been producing previously. Leland Davis talks about the “Me and Dave” stories, and how as producers of media, we have an obligation to try and make something more meaningful than a simple, “Me and Dave went boating today, it was fun.” With this film, I’ve learned more technical skills for getting the most out of my footage, and I try to always improve on telling a better story. So hopefully the story I tell is meaningful, and people enjoy watching it.


For tips on how to make the best of your trip to Costa Rica, click here: Tips for Paddling in Costa Rica.

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